Not long ago, those who follow the Netflix/Marvel universe were prone to complain about the associated bloat that came with six series launching within months of each other. But with the cancelation of “Iron Fist” swiftly followed by “Luke Cage,” that universe appears to be on the verge of implosion.
Taking place in the shadows of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in 2015 Netflix launched its interconnected series that also include “The Defenders,” “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” and “The Punisher.” They represented a big step forward for television about superheroes, grounding what might have been fantastical narratives in real world grit and dirt. “Daredevil” took on a corrupt local government in between ninja fights. “Jessica Jones” wasn’t just a hard-boiled detective story, but a thoughtful examination of trauma and survival. And “Luke Cage” swung hard at race issues, making its lead character’s hoodie an iconic statement.
Not every show was a success. “Iron Fist” failed to live up to the creative standard set by other series, even in its improved second season, and “The Defenders” proved to be a wasted opportunity on a number of levels (including a criminal underuse of Sigourney Weaver and her fabulous coats). Still, the showrunners pushed toward creating challenging narratives with ambition, and the way they were woven together with supporting characters and ongoing narratives offered plenty of fan fun.
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However, the current state of these series is pretty far from marvelous. When “Iron Fist” was canceled October 12, the move seemed less like a death blow for the adventures of Danny Rand (Finn Jones) and more like an opportunity to incorporate the character into other series; he’d always functioned best as a counterpoint to Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and the rest.
However, the cancelation of “Luke Cage” is far more concerning, especially considering where Harlem’s Hero was last seen. [Editor’s note: Spoilers for the “Luke Cage” Season 2 finale follow.]
After a season of struggling with his place as a community leader, Luke seemingly drifted to the dark side, taking over Harlem’s Paradise in a scene directly referencing Michael Corleone succumbing to his family’s wishes and becoming the new don at the end of “The Godfather.”
It’s a massive cliffhanger that leaves the show’s hero in a morally compromised state — rich material for a third season, especially if Danny (whose appearance in “Luke Cage” Season 2 was perhaps the best use yet for the character) played a role in restoring Luke to the right path. However, the late-Friday announcement that “Luke Cage” would not return leaves that character, as well as his supporting cast, in cancelation limbo.
Nor does the future look bright for the other Netflix/Marvel series. More that one cast member has said that there won’t be a follow-up to “The Defenders,” and while “Daredevil” just launched its third season, there’s no greenlight for the fourth. (Season 3 does set up a new direction for the series, as well as one of Daredevil’s most iconic villains.)
Production is currently underway on “Jessica Jones” Season 3, but it’s already been announced that “Jones” showrunner Melissa Rosenberg will leave the Marvel world for a Warner Bros. TV deal. “The Punisher” Season 2 is also in production, but the series operated independently from the other shows in its first season and it’s hard to imagine that changing in the future.
At the Television Critics Association press tour last summer, Netflix’s head of original programming Cindy Holland acknowledged that the original agreement with Marvel was for the four original series plus the “Defenders” miniseries. “We added ‘The Punisher’ along the way, [and] there’s always an ongoing discussion as to whether we might spin off a couple of characters into additional properties,” she said. At that point, no one anticipated the possibility that Netflix would get over its aversion to cancellation, and lay waste to half the universe it built.
All creative concerns aside, there may be a clear business reason for all of this: Marvel may be looking to wrap up these series with the looming launch of Disney’s streaming service, rumored to be called Disney Play. Currently, a lot of original content is currently being developed for the new platform, including a long-promised live-action “Star Wars” series executive produced by Jon Favreau. Presumably, the studio will want to consolidate any future Marvel-related efforts there.
If that’s the case, it would represent an act of kindness for the fans who have followed the 132 episodes of all six series (to date) and find a way to wrap up things for these characters — perhaps in a final season of “Daredevil” (the show that began it all) or in an event series or film. Nothing lasts forever, but the best aspects of what Netflix and Marvel created — the humanizing take on the superheroic, and the narrative daring to blend these series together when possible — deserve that consideration.
However, the more likely outcome, the one to anticipate glumly, is this: The remaining series simply getting canceled one after another, fading away into oblivion.
Turns out Thanos’ snap was more powerful than anyone could have imagined.